Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) writes Kubla Khan (1816) in a mode of escapism which was compatible with the Romantic attitude in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Kubla Khan is composed with allusions to the exotic, foreign and erotic, all which are elements of the poem’s pervading Orientalism. Drawing on connotations of “Otherness”, the female characters of this poem are implicated by their sexuality and the potential threat or pleasure which they provide.
Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827.
This poem requires a ‘suspension of disbelief’1 in a form of literary exploration running counter to the Enlightenment ideals of decorum, order and rationality; as such, Coleridge’s female characters can be seen as the accumulation of unexplored sexuality, repressed passions and even male fears.
Orientalist Interior, Thiodore Chassiriau
Kubla Khan2 is saturated with allusions to sexuality, fertility and eroticism bound with the feminine ‘Exotic’3 construct. Its polarities of the demonic ‘woman wailing for her demon-lover’ (Kubla Khan, l. 16) and siren ‘Abyssinian maid’ (Kubla Khan, l. 39) confront the female character as sexual deviant or muse, branched by an Orientalist insight into foreign entities as dangerous ‘other’4 with roots in sensual appeal and taboo pleasure. Coleridge’s evocation of the landscape is intimately tied with that of the female body as the site of a ‘forbidden, primitive, enchanting and savage’5 sexuality.
This is the impetus for conflict and tensions within the poem whereby the monumental, masculine ‘Fragment’6 is rendered unstable by the mysterious body of a woman. Xanadu is charged with a highly erotic energy which pervades the poem and the proclamation of ‘A stately pleasuredome’ (Kubla Kahn, l. 2) is the point of departure to overtly sexual themes in Coleridge’s scenic overview. It has been argued by Watkins that here, the environs described are a foil for the female anatomy and sexual release7.
Théodore Géricault – Evening, Landscape with an Aqueduct, 1818
Indeed, the botanical associations take on a sensual quality bearing connotations with the act of sex and fertility. For example the phallic ‘towers’ (Kubla Khan, l. 7) are overpowered by the ‘gardens’ (Kubla Khan, l. 8) which take on curvaceous forms of ‘hills’ (Kubla Khan, l. 8) indicative of a woman whose ‘deep romantic chasm […] slanted / Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!’ (Kubla Khan, ll. 12-13) Here, the exclamation of a ‘chasm’ with ‘cedarn cover’ could be symbolically yonic8, recalling the covering of female genitalia with fig leaves or pubic hair. I would take this reading from biblical and mythological sources where the female has a close relationship with nature as with Eve in the Old Testament: the body later becomes its own closely guarded ‘garden’, allegorically evoked across literature9.
Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix, 1826.
Xanadu is rooted in its own exoticism and is marked by a ceaseless and unconstrained interplay of sexual, fantastical and spiritualistic elements. The embodiment of this erotic freedom comes to a head in the image of a ‘wailing’ (Kubla Khan, l. 16) woman, whose cries recall heated passions and the throngs of ecstasy. Whilst liberated by this, she is also viewed as a primitive prisoner in her apparent barbarism. She is fixed on the object of her pleasure, the ‘demon-lover’ (Kubla Khan, l. 16) which borders on the sexual frustration implied by the ‘turmoil seething’ from ‘this chasm’ (Kubla Khan, l. 17), metaphors which appear to play on orgasmic experiences, further reinforced by ‘fast thick pants’ (Kubla Khan, l. 18) and ‘a mighty fountain’ which ‘was forced’ and ‘burst’ (Kubla Khan, ll. 19-20). Such sexual energy is rendered tempestuous and dangerous as the woman is over sexed, evidently in touch with her base desires and sexualised as a being in this poem.
Damsel with a Dulcimer
As an interesting contrast, the ‘Abyssian maid’ (Kubla Khan, l. 39) serves a source of temptation and ‘her symphony and song’ (Kubla Khan, l. 43) imbue her with the qualities of a muse, inspiring the poet to ‘build that dome in air’ (Kubla Khan, l. 46), however the ‘damsel’ is seen ‘In a vision’ (Kubla Khan, ll. 37-38) and is therefore distant and just out of reach. Both the women of Kubla Khan are conjured from the dream-state10, so whilst the poem reads as a form of seduction, they’re ultimately at the core of a repressed and unfulfilled sexuality which torments the poet in his escapism.
The Abduction of Rebecca, Eugène Delacroix, 1846.
Implicit within this poem is the sense that that which is ‘savage’ and ‘holy’ (Kubla Khan, l. 14) needs to be tamed by a male creative power11, Fulford spies Coleridge’s intentions of setting 11 up Kubla Khan as ‘a sublime genius – a conqueror, a statesman, a master-builder’12 and the poetic divide between one woman who savagely wails and another who angelically sings. Oriental conquest requires the enslavement of the adverse13 and whilst Coleridge revels in the hedonistic and fetishised nature of Xanadu, his agenda could ultimately be to conquer these unruly forces as reflected in its women. Anne K. Mellor observes this desire of ‘total absorption’14 and Marlon B. Ross in his criticism writes on: the ‘power of self-possession’ one which ‘is repeatedly willed’ by ‘overt and subliminal appeals to the virility and masculinity’ of ‘creative power’15. This is supported contextually by contemporary attitudes to sex and sexuality, which were typically suppressed: As a poet, Coleridge manifests extremes through an artistic outlet, offering a rare insight into the duality of women’s sexuality as both blissful and corruptive.
1Anthony J. Ferri, Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Poetic Faith in Film (2007), p. 9.
2Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan, in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Other Poems (Courier Corporation, 1992), pp. 58-59.
3Henry H. H. Remak, ‘Exoticism in Romanticism’, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1 (March 1978), pp. 53-65.
4Saree Makdisi, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 118.
6Timothy Bahti, ‘Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and the Fragment of Romanticism’, Comparative Literature, Vol. 96, No. 5 (December 1981), pp. 1035-1050.
7Daniel P. Watkins, Sexual Power in British Romantic Poetry (Florida: University Press of Florida, 1996), p. 91.
8Ann B. Dobie, Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism (Cengage Learning, 2011), p. 60.
9Northrop Frye and Alvin A. Lee, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), p. 127.
10Sunil Kumar Sarker, S.T. Coleridge (Atlantic Publishers & Dust, 2001), p. 261.
11Barbara Caine and Gienda Sluga, Gendering European History: 1780-1920 (A&C Black, 2002), p. 28
12Amar Nath Prasad, Recritiquing S.T. Coleridge (Sarup & Sons, 2007), p. 114.
13Anthony Grafton, Glenn W Most and Salvatore Settis, The Classical Tradition (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 262.
14Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender (New York and London, 1993), pp. 20-27.
15Marlon B. Ross, ‘Romantic Quest and Conquest: Troping Masculine Power in the Crisis of Poetic Identity’, in Anne K. Mellor (ed.), Romanticism and Feminism (Bloomington, Ind., 1988), pp. 26-51 (p. 34).